July 7, 2005
By STEVEN GOODE, Courant Staff Writer
The inscribed red bricks tell the story.
"Mom's last word: Meet
"Six-year-old survivor. Carried out on Dad's shoulders."
"Fallen angels, Agnes,
Judy, Eva and Michael Norris."
"As close to hell as
I want to get."
In this case, hell was the Hartford Circus Fire of July 6, 1944,
which claimed the lives of 168 people, many of them women and
On Wednesday, the 61st anniversary of the worst fire in the
state's history, several hundred people, including survivors
of the fire and relatives of the victims, attended a dedication
ceremony of the Hartford Circus Fire Memorial.
The memorial, located in a field behind the Fred D. Wish Elementary
school in North Hartford, was erected on the site of the disaster
and laid out as the circus tent - which burned to the ground
in just 10 minutes - was that day.
At the center ring of the memorial, four granite benches and
the inscribed bricks surround a curved, bronze disk rising up
from the ground. The names of the victims and their ages are
etched into it.
Sisters Mary Wirtz, 87, and Barbara Rubenthaler, 80, arrived
from Upland, Calif., on Monday for the event to honor the memory
of their brother, William Curlee, who perished in the fire.
Wirtz said Curlee, then 29, had come back to Hartford on vacation
from Ohio and went to the circus that day with his 8-year old
son, David, his brother-in-law and some other neighborhood kids.
"When the fire started, he put David out of the tent and
said 'go wait for me by the car,'" Wirtz said. "They
were sitting by the animal cages and he started putting children
over the cages."
Rubenthaler said her brother's foot slipped and became trapped
in a cage and he was unable to get out. She wasn't surprised
that he would stay behind to help.
"He had four younger sisters," she said. "He
was used to looking out for people."
Wirtz had gone to the circus the night before, but went to the
scene when she heard what had happened to her brother.
"Everything was burned, just burned up," she said. "I
was lucky, that was all."
Wednesday's ceremony included remarks from some of the 13 members
of the Hartford Circus Fire Memorial Foundation, musical presentations,
proclamations from politicians and the unveiling of the memorial's
centerpiece. Each victim's name was also read aloud and accompanied
by a ring of a Hartford Fire Department bell as children placed
white roses on the monument.
"When they were reading those children's names and ages,
my heart just about broke," Rubenthaler said
At the outer edges of the memorial, several flowering dogwoods
are planted to mark the location of the side and end walls of
the tent that was packed to capacity that day with 7,000 circus-goers.
On the north side of the memorial, a path winds toward the entrance
to the center ring. Along the way several granite pedestals provide
a timeline of the events of that day
On Wednesday, circus fire survivors John Ruzbasan and his sister
Lois McHugh stood near the spot they were seated that day. The
two got into the show for free because they helped set things up
the day before.
Ruzbasan, then 11, believes he was one of the first to realize
the tent was burning after he saw a vendor point to a small,
circular fire on the canvas wall behind where he was sitting.
"All I remember was moving as fast as I could," said
Ruzbasan, who ran to get his sister before he left.
McHugh, then 8, said the event has stayed with her throughout
"I always sit near the door, check for exits and I never
sit on the inside of a booth," she said. "I'm going
to be the first one out if something happens."
The dedication ceremony was the culmination of four years of
work by the Hartford Circus Fire Memorial Foundation's members
who, coordinating with city agencies, raised about $125,000 from
about 700 private donations and helped design the monument.
On Wednesday, Don Massey,
co-treasurer of the foundation and co-author of a book on the
fire with former firefighter Rick Davey, called the memorial
a place of reconciliation and reflection and said he was gratified
to hear it referred to as "a park."
"If that is a statement of the community, we have done
well. It's meant to be upbeat, positive and hopeful," he
After the dedication, Hartford Fire Chief Charles A. Teale Sr.,
one of the people who led the drive for a memorial, said he was
relieved at the reception the memorial received from survivors
of the fire and to have finally completed it.
"After the 50th anniversary, I thought the plaque that
we put inside the school would have to suffice, but I was wrong," he
said. "It became our responsibility to say 'we can do it,'
and we did."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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